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ORNL textile coding system weaving way to marketability


A textile marking system developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that encodes information invisible to the naked eye could save the U.S. millions of dollars in revenue lost each year to counterfeiters and violators of trade laws.

While Mexican, Caribbean, African and Central American firms commonly use raw materials produced in the United States – and receive exemption from certain import tariffs – some manufacturers routinely falsify country-of-origin certification to avoid paying those taxes. The work of a team led by Glenn Allgood of the Department of Energy lab’s Computational Sciences and Engineering Division could put an end to the deception.

"Our goal is to have a system using a fluorescent dye or other taggant that will cost just tenths of a cent per taggant, can survive the harsh manufacturing process and will not affect the quality of the garment," Allgood said. "We will also be able to encode specific process information such as the date and place of manufacture."

As a result of an initial grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, ORNL has developed a novel textile coding system that acts as a micro-taggant. The marker, which can be read only by special scanners, identifies the source, type, production conditions and composition of textile material. The system is based on a near-infrared -- light just beyond visible red light -- material that can be used either as a marker, geometric figure or a bar code with millions of letter and number combinations.

The encoding system is far less expensive on a per taggant basis than other information encoding systems such as those that use DNA or radio frequency identification. In addition, Allgood and others involved in the collaboration believe the ORNL technology offers a number of distinct advantages such as no impact on material properties and multiple uses at a lower cost.

Recently completed tests confirm that the ORNL tagging process works and can survive the textile manufacturing process, which includes scouring, bleaching, mercerizing, dyeing and finishing. Next, Allgood and colleagues at North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles plan to conduct tests using elements of a first-generation system and work with an industry partner to conduct field tests.

"Once the marking system becomes fully operational, the U.S. Customs Service will have the tool to clearly identify apparel made with U.S. textiles in accordance with trade agreements," said Hardy Poole, a member of the research team. "This will be invaluable to our government in its efforts to eliminate the illegal importation of millions of dollars of non-U.S. textiles that enter our country annually."

Other partners in the effort include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Clemson University and manufacturers of yarn, thread, fabric forming, dyeing and finishing and sewn products.

While the textile industry is the primary customer for the proposed marker system, Allgood noted that the technology has many other applications such as for homeland defense, inventory tracking and control, and the military.

"By using one of our simple and inexpensive tags, a company will instantly be able to identify its products," Allgood said. "This could have a number of legal and security implications."

The next phase of the project will involve gaining a better understanding of the stability of tagged materials after being tagged – specifically whether the marker has an effect on the fabric quality. In addition, researchers will investigate the optimum method for depositing the tag onto the material and seek to answer a number of other questions involving the many variables of the process.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.

Ron Walli | EurekAlert!
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